It’s been now a year and a half of online conferences. In the beginning they were exciting. Great — less traveling!
I have participated several that have bee very well organised. For instance, I was closely following how the Participatory Design conference (PDC 2010) was organised. The PDC’s Handbook for Meaningful and Engaged Conversations is good reading for anyone interested in to organise an online conference.
Usually online conferences sucks. I am going to attend one more, the World Conference on Mobile, Blended and Seamless Learning (mLearn 2021). I am excited to give a talk in there, but same time sad that the conference was not arranged face to face. This will be my last online conference. I am done.
So, what is wrong with online conferences?
The reasons are the same, why some 15 years ago there was a lot of interest to organise unconferences, with less formal talks and more discussions. People felt that in a conference we should focus on the things that are most valuable: the discussions on the topics of the conference, things happening outside the formal presentations. The hackathons, design sprints and game jams are another forms of knowledge sharing and learning that are often better than a traditional conference.
In academic research, having face to face conferences, however, still makes sense. In a face to face conference there is always naturally a lot of other things happening than formal talks: you meet a colleague in the corridor whose research you recently read and have a chat, you have a breakfast with a potential collaborator and build trust, you listen to a great talk and ask some additional questions about it during the coffee break. In online conferences these others things are close to zero — not because many organisers do not see the value of them, but because it is just impossible to organise them. Virtual get-togethers? Thanks, but no-thanks.
So, why these things works in face to face, but not online?
This is simply a question of human nature and human psychology. When we are traveling to a conference, we are out of our daily routines and responsibilities. We are in a mode of meeting other people, to learn from them, to take most out of the time with other people, our colleagues. We are fully immersed to the conference, physically and mentally. In three words: we are present.